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Sunday 10 March 2024

The Gates of Hell (with music video)

A long time ago on this blog, I did a post about Dante's Inferno - Hunt Emerson's comic-book adaptation of a 14th century epic poem set in Hell. As I said there, the comic does wonders for clarifying the whole point of Dante's original -  i.e. that it's basically a satire on Italian political history, rather than a serious attempt to depict the landscape and geography of Hell. But it does a strikingly vivid job of the latter even so, which has inspired a multitude of subsequent works from Sandro Botticelli's 15th century illustrations of Hell to Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's SF novel Inferno (1976), which uses the same basic setting (and, of course, Hunt Emerson's 2012 comic-book version).

On the musical side, there's a distinctly horror movie-esque portrayal of Hell in the Dante Symphony (1857) by Franz Liszt (who featured in another early post on this blog, Lisztomania). This begins with a dramatic depiction of the Gates of Hell, which inspired me to create the following video. I've added four electronic tracks of my own (demonic voice, drum machine, saw bass and synth pad), but otherwise it's just a digitally distorted vinyl recording of the opening of Liszt's symphony. Visually the gates and demons are courtesy of Bing's AI image creator, while the depiction of Hell itself is by Botticelli. When it's all put together, I think the result is pretty cool ((even though I say it myself):

I've twisted the original a bit in having the words spoken by demons. In Dante's poem, these are phrases that (in their original Italian form) are inscribed over the gates of Hell, while Liszt has them depicted by orchestral instruments, rather than being spoken or sung. But since I like playing with free software, I couldn't resist adding the synthesized voice.

The other software I used here was Tracktion Waveform Free, together with various free instrument and effects plugins (or ones that came free with Computer Music magazine, anyway). These are all great toys to play with, as I discovered a few years ago when I was doing a book called The Science of Music. I was asked to do that one because I'd previously written The Science of Sci-Fi Music - but while the latter was about a subject I knew something about (avant-garde classical music of the mid-20th century), the new one strayed way outside my comfort zone into modern digital music production. And the quickest way to learn a new subject is to try doing it yourself!

One thing I mentioned in passing in The Science of Music is that, if people who aren't fans of classical music have heard of Franz Liszt at all, it's most likely through the rhyming slang phrase "Brahms and Liszt". And as it happens, Brahms is another composer I've swiped a vinyl sample from. Unlike The Gates of Hell, there isn't even a tenuous fortean connection in this case, but I think the result is one of the most musically successful things I've done (in a chilled-out "lo-fi" sort of way). Here's the result:

While I was writing this post, I suddenly remembered that I've actually seen the "Gates of Hell", or at least a monumental bronze representation of them by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. This was at the Rodin Museum in Paris, which I visited in 2013 - the photograph below is one I took at the time. If you look closely at the panel above the gates, you'll see Rodin's most iconic image - "The Thinker" - in its original setting.



Colin Jones said...

Hell has never made much sense to me - wouldn't it be more logical for Satan to reward sin rather than punish sin? Apparently the Church of England no longer officially believes in Hell anyway - maybe the image of a fire & brimstone realm ruled over by The Horned One and his hissing demons is too silly nowadays.

By the way, Andrew, I've certainly heard of Liszt and Brahms and not just because of the Cockney rhyming phrase for drunk!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - glad to hear it, as both Liszt and Brahms are among my favourite classical composers! That's an interesting point you raise about Hell, which hadn't really occurred to me before. If Satan really was the ultimate sneaky salesman as portrayed in most religions, then surely he'd put a lot of effort into portraying Hell as a desirable destination (even if it wasn't), wouldn't he? There's also the fundamental theological question of why, if God is more powerful than Satan, he allows Hell to exist in the first place. Niven and Pournelle come up with a fairly convincing solution to this paradox in Inferno, but as it comes right at the end of the novel it would be something of a spoiler to say what it is!

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, I forgot to praise your music videos - the first one was especially good!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - it's great to hear you say that. I know that music is highly subjective, so I don't expect everyone to like everything I do, but it's always nice to receive positive feedback like this!

Kid said...

Well, strictly speaking, God allows Satan to rule in Hell, but it's a place unrepentant sinners essentially send themselves to by rejecting God. In fact, Satan is probably as much a prisoner of Hell as any other inhabitant, but he's in charge to a limited degree. That's not necessarily what I personally believe, as the Jews used figurative imagery that their audience would understand. Outside the gates of Jerusalem was a 'lake of fire' (Gehenna) where dead bodies were burned, so this was the worst thing they could think of to symbolise Hell.

Too tired to listen to music at the mo, AM, will get back to you on that.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - I think you're spot on about the "official" view of Hell there. Wikipedia's article on "Hell in Catholicism" starts off by saying "Hell in Catholicism is the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed" - and then a bit later on says "Pope John Paul II taught that Hell, which is spoken of symbolically in the Bible, does not just refer to a place, but principally refers to the state of definitive self-exclusion from God". This suggests it's really meant as an abstract concept, with physical descriptions of it (as you say) only being developed as a teaching aid for a less theologically sophisticated audience.

Hope you do get round to watching the video - I'll look forward to hearing what you think when you do!

Kid said...

I've now watched and listened to your two videos, AM, and can't fault you on the 'production values' in any real way. However, bearing in mind that I am actually into a lot of classical music, I found them just a tad too repetitive. It was as if you'd picked a short musical extract for each vid and then played it on a loop. So, as I said, well done on the skill required for putting them together, but they didn't quite set my world on fire. Maybe next time.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - glad you liked the visuals (which were quite fiddly to get the timings right, especially in The Gates of Hell), even if you were underwhelmed by the music. Personally I didn't mind the repetition in these two cases (in the first video because because the music is really only a background to the spoken voice, and in the second as it's meant to be hypnotic and restful). But if you look through some of my earlier videos on YouTube, you'll find some pseudo-classical experiments that are much less repetitive (they have loads of other faults instead!).

I just had a look back to see if I could find something you might like betterm ,and here's one you really got to listen to as it features me skimming through a 1960s Marvel comic and finding an advert for a Frank Zappa album. The music sounds very classical but the tunes (of which there are several) are all swiped from said Zappa album! If you like it, perhaps we could think of a way of doing a short post around it on your blog:

Kid said...

I'll certainly watch it, but I was never a fan of Zappa, though one of my pals was. I saw the last 10 or 15 minutes of his 200 Motels movie in Southsea in 1978 and it was awful. Fire away on the post, though, and I'll publish it anyway.

Andrew May said...

Yes, Zappa is definitely an acquired taste. I struggle with his longer, free-form jazzy pieces, but I think some of his shorter, more carefully composed songs are brilliant - not really rock or jazz or classical, but a unique combination of all the above. But the ad jumps out at you even if you'd never heard of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - far more interesting than the usual thing that appeared in 1960s Marvel comics.

I'll email you tomorrow re possible approaches to a blog post.